The words “Team Fortress 2” immediately evoke a number of crystal-clear associations in the mind’s eye: the distinct, eye-catching character classes, the hyperbolic cartoony art style, the tinny blare of teammates’ voices in headsets as you argue over military tactics. One particular association, however, presides firmly over all, as innate as the kneejerk reaction – HATS.
Ahhh, hats. The introduction of the purely cosmetic items caused such a stir within the TF2 community that the game devs facetiously rebranded the MMOFPS as “America’s #1 war-themed hat simulator”.
Despite cynicism from some gamers about style becoming more prevalent than substance, customisation has become an integral part of gaming in general. Whether it’s character design, partial conversion mods, or simply that sexy decal on your console, custom jobs are an opportunity for the gamer to augment and personalise their experience, and even effective social networking tools.
It’s not just customisable content in video games that has become ever more ubiquitous, after all; the consoles themselves have undergone a variety of sassy makeovers. Nowadays, it’s probably not enough for your handheld to sport the traditional, impotent colours of its mass-produced kin – the most fashionably-attired bits of kit flaunt metallic trims and geeky frills to truly convey the individuality of its owner. It’s all a little bit animal kingdom-esque, actually.
Sure, you’re probably not carrying around your limited-edish Zelda 3DS in order to indicate to passing pedestrians that you’re in heat, but the peacocking process of customisation (whether in-game or IRL) is a means to at least incite an approving, if disappointingly platonic, nod from other gamers. I imported this shit from Japan, guys. Respect my authority.
Customisation options in gaming are about standing out – or at least enjoying the illusion of standing out – in a market that once used to be built on the atypical and the individual and that is now sometimes disappointingly accessible, normalised and mass-produced. Game developers have recognised this and are continually offering gamers what they crave: the freedom to create and broadcast their own living, breathing identity over cold, hard standards.
Funnily enough, the first manifestation of such infinite creative freedom often inevitably results in gamers setting up camp in a very definite box. The Sims series is an excellent example of wrapping yourself up in the comforting blanket of narcissism in the form of an obsessively detailed recreation of reality.
Likewise, Grand Theft Auto V panders to the gamer’s need to fantasy of putting ourselves inside the game. The hyperrealism and credible boundaries of the sprawling sandbox, jaw-dropping simulations and rich character customisation options headily juxtapose the endless opportunities for creating unbelievable chaos and mayhem in a virtual world that runs joyously and eerily similarly to our own.
It’s a god complex situation as intoxicating as that of the The Sims franchise, but instead of residing over the zany action in the realistic terrarium of the game, we are able to use character customisation and personal gameplay choices in order to place a finely-tuned representation of ourselves in the satisfyingly realistic arena of fantasy.
The role of customisation in video games, however, arguably transcends the realm of indulgent whimsy and narcissism. Inspired by a dizzying flexibility, gamers naturally push the envelope beyond this freedom of representation into the freedom of aspiration. The gamer’s desire to be individual is fed by the increasingly malleable software that they are offered, leading to outcomes that the developers themselves often nowhere near anticipate, despite having provided the means for its creation.
In this way, super-customisable video games are increasingly evolving from being merely superficial entertainment and distraction into tools for creation and socialisation through sharing innovative ideas. Game devs are admirably and unselfishly putting the creative power in the hands of players in providing extensive opportunities for customisation.
The customisable potential of avatars, graphics and even the games themselves has become an essential part of modern gaming. For many gamers, playing as one predetermined character or playing a predetermined level is simply not enough any more. As games have evolved, so have gamers. Often both creative and logical, us seasoned gamers know exactly what we want from games and quite rightly want to play our way.
The superficial is becoming the fundamental, and customisation is an important statement of fun and individuality in an industry of factory copies and difficult-to-change archetypes. Sharing the joy of the superficial and the downright silly elevates video games even further from instruments of fun to the machinery of consumer testing and product development.
What’s the harm then, in the Team Fortress 2 devs recalibrating their linguistic and in-game focus from the militaristic shooter setup to the fantastical array of hats available? Surely it’s better to nurture the evolution of the aspirational creative, the individual, the innovator, than dismiss them for being superficial.